Ovid’s treatment of the character of Lucretia and his account of her rape in the second book of the Fasti (2.685-852) have been overwhelmingly interpreted as a portrait of a woman disempowered by enforced silence, a private individual whose suffering is “absorbed and altered by a political ideology committed to an exemplary view of the past," a system "whose acceptance she can seek only through dying” (Newlands 1995: 146, 167). Recent readings of both Livy’s (Ab urbe condita 1.57-60) and Ovid’s versions of the story have tended to emphasize Lucretia’s fatal self-imposed confinement to Roman standards of matronly pudicitia, and her status as sacrificial victim and catalyst of a system valorizing masculinity and masculine discourse (Joplin 1990; Joshel 1992; Newlands 1995; Oliensis 2009). Many readings of Ovid also place Lucretia’s narrative of female rape and silencing within the context of other such narratives in the Fasti or in Ovid’s poetry in general, as an instance of the poem’s (and poet’s) broader commentary on restriction of speech, the subjection of women, and the problematic elements of Rome’s past (Feeney 1992; Richlin 1992; Keegan 2002).
In this paper, I offer an alternative reading of Ovid’s Lucretia story, one attentive to the inherent power of gesture and the physical body in his narrative. Ovid’s account of Lucretia and the downfall of the Tarquinii, I argue, repeatedly presents examples of gestures and bodies “speaking” louder than words: for instance, Collatinus declares that the soldiers should trust actions rather than words in judging the relative merits of their wives (Fasti 2.734), and Tarquin’s verbal assaults on Lucretia’s virtue (2.805-806) are less effective in themselves than his sword and his physical strength (2.801-804). Unlike Livy’s eloquent Lucretia, Ovid’s reveals her rape to her husband and father by her very refusal to articulate it; her silent weeping and broken speech effectively emphasize the nefas of the facta nefanda (2.850) perpetrated on her while rejecting the necessity of being explicit, which she regards as akin to a second violation (2.825-826). Ovid’s version of the tale thus suggests an alternative avenue of communication and of power that privileges silence over eloquence, and which his Lucretia seems to have mastered.
The religious and political associations of this silent communication, I further argue, are manifest in Ovid’s account in ways that are totally absent in Livy: Lucretia is characterized as the possessor of divine, or of imperial, power. When Brutus breaks his silence in response to Lucretia’s suicide, he tells her that her spirit will be a divinity (numen) to him (2.842), and the dying woman affirms his deifying oath of vengeance with a wordless gesture (2.845-846) that resembles a god’s (or an emperor’s) answer to a petition. Earlier, she condemns herself to death and denies herself mercy (veniam, 2.830), a word last used in the Fasti to refer to Augustus’ clementia toward his enemies (2.143).
Perhaps most telling of all is a curious parallel that garners only brief mention in previous scholarship (Newlands 1995: 169-170). An emphasis on Lucretia’s modesty of attitude in death (2.833-834) seems to tally with accounts of Julius Caesar’s assassination (Suetonius Jul. 82.2), an event that Ovid, one book later (Fasti 3.697-710), goes out of his way to mention in a context that in turn oddly recalls the chastity and domesticity of Lucretia. Here, it is Octavian and not Brutus the assassin who plays the part of Brutus’ ancestor, avenging the nefas (3.705) of his adoptive father’s assassination as Lucretia’s Brutus swore vengeance for Tarquin’s facta nefanda (2.850). Examining all this in detail yields an intriguing possibility: that Ovid’s account of the death that triggers the birth of the Republic is not simply a story of female powerlessness or of the triumph of Republican ideals, but a complex reflection on the foundations and nature of Augustan imperium.
Gender Trouble in Latin Narrative Poetry